When my sister was a little girl she was a very ‘girlie’ girl, wearing long prairie dresses and had long flowing beautiful hair like a little princess. I always wanted to get her special little gifts, one time i found this charming little white glass flask of perfume which was painted with purple violets. She loved the gift and played with it in many ways and still cherishes that bottle to this day. The elusive fragrance in that container was extracted from the Sweet violet (Viola odorata), one of the most famous of all scents.
This extremely dainty plant has been known since the ancient times as having special appeal. Around the Mediterranean area most cultures which originated there knew of it’s special properties and used it for medicinal treatments. In Rome it was used Viola odorata for scenting sweet wines, the Greeks knew it as a herb and made perfumes with it. It is used in Indian Ayurvedic and the Unani systems of medicine to reduce inflammation and easing of colds and coughs. It is also listed in Arabic and Persian medical writings.
Sweet Violets have been written about in famous verses, who hasn’t said at least once ” Roses are red, Violets are blue”, I know I have. In Medieval times Sweet Violets were used as a herb which was spread or strewn about the house to ‘sweeten’ the air. Napoleon was so obsessed with the tiny flower that he is said to have died wearing a locket filled with the tiny blooms from Josephine s'(his first wife who adored it) grave. During Victorian times there was a mania for Sweet Violets, at this time there were 4 known varieties. It is noted that by 1874 over 6 tons of the tiny flowers were harvested in France each year to supply perfumery as well as to be sold as tiny bouquets or posies on street corners. Corsages worn by women were very popular into the early 20th century. With the end of the Victorian era came the end of the Violet mania which was waning by 1910.
Sweet ‘Scented’ Violets have an elusive fragrance which is so ethereal that it disappears all most as soon as you sense it. For a few minutes it literally numbs your scent receptors. It of course is it’s Victorian connections which people relate it to, elderly ladies with blue hair and all of that and because of this it is thought of as somewhat cloying and old-fashioned. The scent is interesting so it is no surprise that culinary confections have and are created using Viola odorata blossoms or extracts and fortunately all of the plant is edible. Candied flowers are a popular and beautiful addition to fancy cakes and petite-fours. It is a popular addition to salads for its delicate foliage, colorful flowers and flavor.
Viola odorata is a widespread plant, it is native to much of Europe and north Africa and spreads east to the Caucasus into to Turkey, through to northern Iran. It is a plant found along edges of woodlands and other sunny spots such as banks and along roadsides. It blooms extremely early in the year starting in late Febuary and continueing through March here.
Viola odorata an easy plant to grow and will grow in any site from gravel to more damp to almost boggy sites.It is most important they have adiquate moisture during the hot summer months. If happy Sweet Violets will seed around and this might be a problem to consider. It is common to see them in lawns as they are so short that they can be mown over with no damage. There are color forms from deep violet(said to be most fragrant) through reddish forms to pure whites as well as doubles. The modern forms have lost their scent, so when selecting you might want to smell them first if that is important to you. They respond very well to annual replanting, so don’t be afraid to move them around in the spring after they bloom. They are hardy to -20c(-30f)- zone 4 through 8. Newer forms might be less hardy.
Links for This Plant:
An intersting article about the plant and its history: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/03/03/news/gardening-it-s-raining-violets.html
Plant Heritage page all about these wonderful Violets: http://www.nccpg.com/Page.Aspx?Page=94